The First Christmas Day on a hill near Bethlehem
I was asleep when it started. This is only my second year of being old enough to join the men when we move the sheep further out of town during the colder months. For about eight months of the year, it is really hot and dry. Those months, we need to have easy access to the well in Bethlehem, at least for part of the day. Once it starts getting wet and colder, we can range further away from town. In those months, there are more seasonal springs and streams for the sheep. Until last year, when the men went further out, I stayed at home with my mom, aunts, and grandpa Phineas.
This year, I am old enough to go out with them, but I can’t seem to stay awake the whole night like they do. My dad, Melki, and my uncles seem to only need one or two hours of sleep each night. So, when the first angel showed up, I was lost in the world of dreams. The older men were all still up talking religion and politics deep into the night. Wherever their conversation took them, it must have come to a sudden stop when that angel appeared. I mean, it isn’t every day when one of heaven’s warriors shows up on the scene and says he has an announcement just for us. Maybe the kings and the rabbis get treatment like that. OK, probably not this current king. But who ever heard of a bunch of shepherds getting such a visit?
When the rest of the angels showed up, I wasn’t sleeping no more. I went straight from laying on my back to jumping to my feet, then falling on my face quicker than your heart can beat twice. Who can sleep when a hundred billion angels light up the sky and shout out their celebration like an eruption of thunder? The whole earth shook as they shouted out together: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace, and goodwill for all men.” I can’t describe what those angels looked like. I only saw them for the briefest of moments before I had fallen to my face in fear and awe. I used my blanket as my tallit, my prayer shawl, and I held my eyes shut tight with my forehead against the ground. Even still, there was a radiance everywhere as if I were facing the noonday sun. And the sound… imagine the man with the deepest and richest voice you have ever heard crying out at the top of his voice in excitement. Now imagine duplicating that shout more times than there are numbers to count. Each one of those voices is shouting out the exact same thing in perfect unison. I will never again use the word awesome for anything else. People use the word awesome for everything. But this was really, really awesome. Nothing can come close to the holy terror I felt at that moment.
Then, just as suddenly as the angels had appeared, they were gone. Normally there is a sound to the night. A hillside might seem peaceful, but with a dozen or so men and a few hundred sheep, it isn’t silent. There is often rain pattering or wind blowing. The sheep are never all asleep at once, and if any of the alpha rams are moving about, you can hear their ringing bells. There are always two or three men awake at every watch of the night. If I were to wake up, I can for certain hear their quiet conversation. It is peaceful, but never is it truly silent. In those few seconds that seemed to stretch into eternity after those angels left, it was truly, fully silent. Not an animal moved, and even the wind was still. The only thing I could hear was my own breath and the speedy thumping of my racing heart. The time seemed much longer, but it was probably only a minute or less before I heard the rustling of the first shepherd getting up off his knees and face. Then I could hear another doing the same. Finally, I dared to peek my own head out of the blanket I was hiding under. Just like that, the silence ended as everybody started talking at once. Everybody was for going down into town at once to see this baby the angels were celebrating. Leaving everything behind, we were all halfway down the hill before we realized all the sheep were faithfully following behind us. Some cruel soul said we should assign a guard to stay with the sheep. Of course, Daniel and I got stuck with the job. Daniel is two and a half years older than I am. There is no one else even close to being as young. Of course, not one of the adults was willing to wait.
Usually, the two of us together would be half swollen with pride to be alone with such a weighty responsibility and half shaking with terror at all the things that might go wrong. Fortunately for us, no animal dared wander off that night. The rams seemed rooted in place, afraid to move, while the sheep all jostled to get as close to them as possible. I can only imagine that any lions or bears out that night fled back to their dens and remained there for days, too afraid to wander out. Neither Daniel nor I noticed any of this. For the first few minutes, both of us were lost deep in our own thoughts. After that, neither of us could stop talking. We both talked about everything we saw and heard from every single angle possible. We regaled each other with ever larger imaginations of what the baby would be like once we had a chance to go see for ourselves. Neither one of us had been awake at the start of the angel’s announcement. We both had only the barest minimum education in the Law and Prophets. So our imaginations of what the baby Messiah would be were free to run wild.
At dawn, the two of us started slowly bringing the herd closer to the town. We both wanted to run the whole way, but with only the two of us and five different families of sheep, we could do little more than to allow the sheep to meander along at their own pace. Even that was challenging enough to tax our young abilities. I swear I could have crawled on my hands and knees towards the village faster than those sheep moved that day. Finally, about an hour before sunset, we saw Nahum, Heli, and Joseph heading back our way. When they met up with us, of course, we were given a stern lecture on pushing the flocks too hard. It was all I could do just to bite my tongue and “yes sir, no sir” my way through the questions they asked us. I could tell that Daniel was much more practiced at such things. Maybe when I am a bit older, I will have learned more self-discipline.
Probably not. My mother likes to say that I was born quick, and I have been in a hurry ever since. Shepherding is hard work, but it isn’t fast work. Not unless a predator has managed to sneak too close unnoticed. Most of the other shepherds are laid back and soft-spoken to one degree or another. Not me. Maybe because I am the youngest, but I always seem to be running and talking and moving and tapping, and tapping, and tapping… that is why I am so eager now to be on my way down to Bethlehem. Nahum has agreed to return with the two of us while the other men stay behind to take over watching the sheep. I guess the rest of the shepherds are still in town with the baby. I am chomping at the bit to get down there myself. Nahum is moving at a pretty fast pace, but it isn’t fast enough. I want to get there now.
Last night, Daniel and I talked about what gift we might possibly give to this baby. We would never dream of coming to visit without something in our hands. What gift would be appropriate for a baby king? What on earth could two young, poor shepherd boys have to offer? Daniel is lucky. He is pretty good with the flute. Every king needs a bard, right? Even baby kings would probably enjoy a well-played lullaby. Even though Daniel isn’t the best in our camp, he knows a tune well enough to send a baby off to sleep. If I were to attempt to play the thing, I would only send the baby and everyone else within hearing into a fit of tears. I cannot play or sing for the life of me. But I do know how to tap my drum. It may not be the most appropriate gift for the one destined to be King of Kings, but it is all I have to offer. I just hope it will be enough.
I can see the village now on the horizon. We are almost there…
Come they told me Pa rum pum pum pum
A new born king to see Pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring Pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the king Pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum
So to honor Him Pa rum pum pum pum
When we come
Little baby Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too Pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring Pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give our King Pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for you Pa rum pum pum pum
On my drum
Mary nodded Pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him Pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum
Then He smiled at me Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum